Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Max Burns


Max Burns is a Democratic media strategist and opinion columnist for The Independent with over a decade of advocacy and nonprofit communications experience. He regularly appears as a news analyst on Fox News, CNN and i24 News. For his work Burns was named a 2019 Public Relations Society of America/PRSA-NY Exceptional Communicators Under 35. @themaxburns

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Anyone practicing political communication must be loyal to the truth. In this field, lying is not only the quickest way to destroy a professional reputation, it undermines the very goal of political communication: generating better policy outcomes through issue advocacy. There are few other lines of work where deception so directly harms the culture as a whole.

Our society once invested institutions like the press with public trust to accurately present reality to us – but with that social contract breaking down, it’s on practitioners to avoid further damage to a weakened system. As media institutions continue to bleed public trust, we face a future without consensus symbols of public integrity or truth. Self-policing our field has become even more important in a time when established trust institutions are in decline.  

 2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

There is, or should be, an understanding among political communicators that we have chosen to take part in a tradition that not only spans nations and cultures, but that through its exercise created those very concepts. Politics and policy, at core, are about making better the lives of many people. They are powerful tools that are too often misused, with the sole result being a great many people harmed because a few individuals manipulated this trunk line of public life for selfish ends.

Unethical communication is a vicious cycle that corrupts everything it touches. No sooner has one group broken the norms of truthfulness in pursuit of their goal than an opposed group, emboldened by the success of that initial deception, pushes the envelope further to balance the scales. It’s this nasty back-and-forth that leads us to a society where “alternative facts” and “post-truth” are unironic phrases.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Our field is filled with good people who commit themselves to honesty and maintain that commitment in their careers and lives. What’s so tragic is that unethical communicators have become so dominant at the top of our political life. The higher profile of their deceptions drowns out political communicators of every political persuasion. It makes the job of persuading and informing the public that much harder for honest communicators when you have very visible individuals gleefully undermining the core principles of our profession.

I take great inspiration from the criminal justice and LGBTQI advocacy organizations in the United States and abroad. They don’t have the luxury of lies – their survival against abuse, imprisonment and murder depends on the full truth being shared as broadly and as effectively as possible. They use the truth as a shield in service of justice. Do more of that.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

The constant ethics-check situation comes when you’re deciding whether or not to omit information that hasn’t been specifically requested. Normally, this will come when a reporter is searching for something, but either doesn’t know what specifically to ask for, or is unsure how to ask. If what they’re looking for weakens your client, do you get pedantic and justify your omission by saying ‘Well, they didn’t ask specifically…”? In a media environment where dogged journalists have more resources than ever for uncovering information, I tend to err on the side of transparency.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

If your goal is to become a television pundit commenting on politics, study broadcasting. I’ve worked with many people whose primary goal was to land on television or sign a contributor contract, and they treat the actual work of political advocacy as a vehicle to get there. That’s not fair to the people who depend on you, and it undermines the seriousness of the task we’ve set for ourselves as voices for those who often lack the resources to engage with the political process on their own.